There are two types of Americans: those who dwell inside-the-beltway and the vast majority who are outside of it. The United States may have been founded as a representative republic, but for at least 80 years taxpayers supported the creation of a feckless and detached political elite whose concerns are first to themselves, then to their class, and finally to whatever foreign countries (as well as multinational corporations) are paying them.
At the center of this bifurcated society is Washington, D.C., a swamp both literal and metaphorical. Ringing the swamp is a heavily congested, poorly maintained highway system that acts as a moat—keeping the swamp-dwellers perfectly encapsulated while preventing ordinary folks from doing anything other than visiting the city’s numerous historical sites.
Our nation’s capital has always been unlike the rest of the country, yet it is only in recent decades that both the inhabitants of Washington, D.C. (as well as the institutions housed there) have come to view themselves as fundamentally different—that is to say, better—than the rest of the country they are supposed to serve.
Over time, an elite cadre of national security practitioners and media figures who swore to defend us, the Constitution, and the truth, in many cases, became too isolated and concerned with their own agencies (and their own careers) to protect our way of life. Today, the purpose of America’s national security bureaucracy has less to do with national defense and more to do with institutional perpetuation.
Let Go of My Echo-Chamber
In a highly controversial interview with the New York Times, the Obama Administration’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, referred to America’s foreign policy establishment as “the Blob,” consisting of “Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.” While I disagree with Rhodes on almost all matters of substance, his criticism of the foreign policy elite in the United States is apt.
Buttressing Rhodes’ claims in 2016 was his derision of Washington’s news media. He claimed that he and his deputy, former CIA agent Ned Price, used the vain and ignorant Washington news media to create an “echo chamber” to generate support for former President Obama’s horrific executive agreement with Iran over that regime’s nuclear weapons program.
According to Rhodes in 2016:
All [the major American newspapers] used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call [the Obama national security council] to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.
Rhodes’ critique of the Washington press corps is also true of the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. Despite all of the public bickering and hand wringing in which our leaders engage, the capital is a consensus city chock full of young strivers as well as middle-aged hangers-on, and defined by extreme risk aversion. Just as few Washington reporters want to leave the safety of the Emerald City to cover foreign policy stories, many of America’s national security practitioners refuse to venture outside of their bureaucracy’s standard operating procedures.
Thus, today, Russia is viewed as America’s greatest threat rather than China because Russia “stole” the 2016 election from Washington’s preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. Few in the beltway dare to challenge that consensus. When they do, their careers and reputations are ruined.
Ignoring, Mocking, and Killing Cassandra
This also explains how, despite having tracked al-Qaeda for a decade, the CIA (and other parts of the bureaucracy) completely missed al-Qaeda’s intention to perpetrate the 9/11 attacks. It further exemplifies what the former counterterrorism czar for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, Richard Clarke, described in his recent book Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes, as “Cassandra’s Curse.”
The national security bureaucracy was full of men and women who warned their superiors about al-Qaeda’s threat throughout the 1990s. But, just as in the ancient Greek tale of Cassandra, the soothsayer who was blessed to see the future but cursed by the gods so that no one would listen to her, America’s Cassandras were similarly ignored by officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Ben Rhodes appreciated—more than others—the incestuous relationship between the press and the national security state. It was why he knew he could manipulate the press both to win public support and to generate consensus in the foreign policy community for the Iran nuclear agreement. The echo chamber is very convenient for ambitious policymakers who seek to do the wrong thing in order to further their own careers or agendas. It’s the Way of the Potomac.
Weak, vain, and ignorant men find rapid success in a capital city that is decadently detached from the ordinary lives of the citizens it purports to rule. People in this town constantly tell themselves that they are truly superior. Yet, their track record of failure is astounding. In the private sector, such failure would be punished. In government—particularly national security and the media—it is rewarded, and called “brilliant.” Doubt this? Ask yourself: in what other sector could a character like Joe Biden prosper?
Because of Washington’s splendid detachment from the rest of the country, we are likely all going to experience another epic (and entirely avoidable) catastrophe on the order of 9/11, unless the president can truly “drain the swamp.” Trump’s recent executive orders making it easier for government agencies to fire federal workers is a great start as it will weaken the influence of government unions. Next, he should start talking about reductions in funding for departments that are either redundant or have a terrible record. Had such basic steps been taken before 9/11, the handful of people who had been warning about al-Qaeda might have moved into positions of influence quicker, and been better able to generate support for their cause. If it happens again, there will be no more excuses.
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